The X-Men: Too much the model minority?

One of things that supposedly make the X-Men different from other super-hero teams is that as a despised minority, Marvel mutants can stand in for real-world minorities. The X-Men movies make this quite clear, with lines like “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”
This analogy falls apart for me due to the X-Men comics having no idea how minorities in the real world actually win their rights. At least up until Grant Morrison’s 21st century run on the book (which shook up the status quo—I don’t know how much has been restored since), the series struck me as a guidebook on how not to win civil rights.
I began noticing this in the early eighties, when I watched the amazing miniseries Eyes on the Prize (available on Netflix and highly recommended). The series chronicles the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycotts through the passage of the Civil Rights Act and LBJ’s declaration “We shall overcome.” Looking at black men and women protesting, demanding their rights, dying in some cases rather than submit, I realized that among mutants, such behavior was unthinkable.
If a bunch of mutants decided to challenge a “no muties” sign at a lunch counter, Cyclops would explain to us all that this was a disaster: Forcing a confrontation just inflames prejudice against mutants. It makes things worse! Someday, when humanity rises above its fears, maybe people will ask mutants to join them at lunch counters, but until then, mutants mustn’t provoke them.
Magneto, of course, would just flatten the lunch counter with a half-ton of scrap metal. He’s not big on nonviolent protest either.
Basically what Chris Claremeont did (while the Silver Age X-Men used anti-mutant discrimination as a plot point, it was CLaremont who made it central to the book) was give the X-Men the voice of the sensible, cautious liberals of the civil-rights era. The ones who told the protesters and speakers that yes, of course, Jim Crow had to fall, civil rights for Negroes were essential—but you’re moving too fast, stirring people up, creating tension. Go slow. Give them time.
Over time, these were the people who really pissed Martin Luther King off. The ones who claimed to believe in civil rights but didn’t think blacks should actually do anything to get them, not until whites were “ready.” As MLK put it, “You must remember that the tensionless period that we like to think of was the period when the Negro was complacently adjusted to segregation, discrimination, insult, and exploitation. And the period of tension is the period when the Negro has decided to rise up and break aloose from that. And this is the peace that we are seeking: not an old negative obnoxious peace which is merely the absence of tension, but a positive, lasting peace, which is the presence of brotherhood and justice. And it is never brought about without this temporary period of tension. The road to freedom is difficult.”
The Claremont-era X-Men didn’t want that period of tension. They saw tension as proof they were doing it wrong.
uncannyxmen200
(Cover art by John Romita, Jr. All rights to current holders)
I admit orchestrating a transition to equality would be difficult, but since that era had no qualms presenting courtroom drama with Magneto on trial or political scheming and maneuvering against mutants, I see no reason they couldn’t have tackled the politics of anti-discrimination. But of course, that would require shaking up a very successful formula.
I can dig that. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But it doesn’t make the message that the way to civil rights is to just suffer until someone gives you your rights. In the words of Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

4 Comments

Filed under Comics, Politics

4 responses to “The X-Men: Too much the model minority?

  1. Pingback: Comics and Books (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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